As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.
This week: Producer Harry Novak moves flesh out of the nudist camp and into the realm of mainstream comedy.
Kiss Me Quick
During the late 50s and early 60s, nudity was forbidden on American movie screens. The Hays Code, an offshoot of the MPAA’s battle with trade unions over how best to manage Hollywood’s talent, had set up strict limitations on what could and could not be shown in the country’s theaters. Along with the typical strictures – hardcore sex, extreme violence, etc. – former Postmaster Will Hayes and his confab of censors took the notions of motion picture morality to ridiculous extremes. Couples could not be shown sleeping in the same bed. Illegal drug use of any type could not be shown. And most importantly, the exposing of the body – specifically, the FEMALE body – could not be featured. To challenge these or any other “indecency” determination was to run the risk of being blacklisted…or even worse.
Of course, there were those in the cinematic underground who made their living attacking these Puritanical pronouncements. The pornographers, the makers of stag and smoker reels who worked in shady back alleys far off the path of legitimacy, taunted the treatment of taboo material at the hand of Hays, though they never really considered themselves part of mainstream moviemaking. And since the MPAA more or less buttered their daily bread, the conventional artists of Hollywood gladly accepted the rules and went about their sexually illogical business. But those looking for a compromise between vice and va-va-va voom wanted a way to show the human body and not end up on a wrong side of the celluloid – or the law. For these pioneers, there had to be an answer to the perception of skin as indignity.
Said solution came in the package of the nudist camp film. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling which made it clear that nudity, by its very nature, was not inherently pornographic (especially when it was featured as part of a “medical or health” ideal), members of the exploitation racket hit upon a novel inspiration. Since nudist camps were considered private spas for wellbeing and fitness, abiding by principles proposed by their European medical counterparts, a nice fat fleshly loophole was discovered. Filmmakers flocked to the nation’s sun worshipper facilities, bringing with them willing models, mediocre storylines, and more than enough ‘exposable’ film. Before long, the circuit was overloaded with scantily clad volleyball players and shuffleboard sharks, each one sporting a carefully positioned towel or accessory (to blot out the still scandalous groin area).
It wasn’t long before the novelty of nudity set within an amiable, outdoorsy location – along with the obvious dichotomy between the professional models and the rather wrinkled, sometimes repugnant actual nudists – took a toll on the rapidly fading nudism fad. If the financial aspect of flesh was going to prosper, someone had to move it into a whole new realm. Luckily, producer Harry Novak knew just what to do. Recognizing that horror films held as much sway over the drive-in crowd as the suggestion of sin, he decided to combine the two. Even better, he would employ comedy as part of his ploy to avoid suspicion and keep his efforts from raising the reservations of the nation’s ethical watchdogs.
Thus the nudie was born, a combination of vaudeville level humor and burlesque oriented bodkin bearing. Though others had employed a similar stance within this new found gimmick guided gratuity – such surreal set-ups as magic cameras that saw its subject naked, special glasses that provided a similar scintillating view, etc. – Kiss Me Quick remains a milestone, since it pushed the limits of lewdness while simultaneously showing that there was nothing really ‘dirty’ about ladies bouncing around, bare-assed. Employing exploitation expert Bethel Buckalew (under his ‘Peter Perry’ nom de plume) and casting strippers from LA’s best nightclubs, the result was a sparkling slap in the face for those who felt nudity was naughty, or worst still, personally depraved.
The storyline was, by nature, desperately simple. In a lonely cardboard cutout of a castle, during a strobe light storm, Dr. Breedlove (actor Max Gardens in a bad fake nose, eyeliner pencil wrinkles, and hip John Lennon granny glasses) attempts to perfect his Sex Fizz, giving portions to his Sex Bombs in order to get them gyrating and undulating. Enter Sterilox (actor Frank A. Coe doing an impression of Stan Laurel on Quaaludes), an alien from the planet Droopeter in the Buttless Galaxy, who engages the doctor in a quest for the perfect female specimen. After giving the Sex Bombs (Boobra, Barebra, and Hotty Totty – otherwise known as Natasha, Bibi, and Claudia Banks) a sip of his Fizz, they begin a wigged out dance to some rather scathing proto-punk surf rock music.
Nonplused, Sterilox asks to see more women, and Dr. Breedlove cheerfully agrees by switching on his Closed Circuit Television Tom Peeper Device. We are then treated to 66 minutes of women undressing, undressed, and cavorting in exercise rooms and swimming pools, all the while making sure that their best features are front and center. Frankenstein, Dracula, and a strange Grand-Mummy kind of thing round out the cast in a nod to the time period (‘64 was a huge year for movie monsters in US popular culture). In between the men’s magazine style sequences, incredibly bad jokes are delivered by professional pratfallers who, in essence, should know better.
Devoid of anything remotely disgusting, and barely reaching the heavy breathing level of vulgarity, what we have here is an extended Burly-Q act made even more memorable by the outrageous acting and backdrop. Buckalew, who would go on to work with Novak on several sensational skin flicks including The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet and The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, does a brilliant job of staging the nakedness, using an unusual approach to his considered camerawork. During the Sex Bombs marvelous dance numbers, he simply sets up the lens and lets the ladies shimmy and shake. Occasionally, he will move in to get a close-up of a fawning face or wide-eyed gaze. But mostly, it’s point and shoot time.
Then there are moments where, in a more private setting, he will let the viewfinder slowly pan up and down a gyrating lass, developing a kind of carnal intimacy that XXX movies would learn to utilize – and abuse - a decade later. It’s fair to say that the level of wit, with its T&A tendency toward the tawdry and tasteless would make grade-schoolers wince in acknowledged juvenilia. In addition, if you’re interested in something beyond exposed breasts and retarded sexual references, Kiss Me Quick fails to deliver much of anything else. But as a monument to the moment when filmmakers found the chutzpah to challenge the wildly unconstitutional claims that kept movies in the decency Dark Ages for several decades, Harry Novak’s horror hijinx were instrumental in paving the way for greater cinematic openness. In essence, he moved nudity out of the camp and into the realm of ordinary comedy. As entertaining as Kiss Me Quick remains, its industry significance cannot be understated. Indeed, it was monsters that helped make nakedness a non-issue for the grindhouse gang.